Pull the other one

In Martin McDonagh's sequel to 'The Beauty Queen of Leenane', the young Turk travels further into his imagined Irish territory. Paul Taylor spots a tourist
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The Cripple of Inishmaan, the new play by the award-winning, indecently youthful Martin McDonagh, made me laugh out loud a fair bit and made the first night audience laugh out loud a great deal. Yet I emerged from Nicholas Hytner's lovingly acted and directed production with the resentful sense of having been conned by a writer of undoubted talent, but as yet no artistic principle or moral scruple. If theatrical manipulation caused bruising, the audience would be leaving the Cottesloe black-and-blue and laid out on stretchers.

In the way that some authors decamp to Ireland physically for tax purposes, 25-year-old McDonagh - who hails from the Elephant & Castle - has taken up imaginative residence in Ireland for creative career purposes. His Beauty Queen of Leenane, the first part of a trilogy which will be completed in the spring, was set in the mountains of Connemara. Moving to Synge territory both geographically and thematically, the new piece takes place in 1934 on a remote island off the west coast.

It tells the tragicomic story of Billy (poignant Ruaidhri Conroy), a 17-year-old cripple whose parents drowned in mysterious circumstances when he was a baby. He is treated as an oddity even by the pair of spinster pretend-aunts (Anita Reeves and Dearbhla Molloy) who have brought him up. It's assumed no one would want to bother with him: in a society where "getting clergymen groping your arse doesn't take much skill" - according to Aisling O'Sullivan's nubile, glaringly aggressive beanpole of an egg- deliverer - the line would still be drawn at groping Billy.

So it's small wonder that the lonely boy yearns to escape the demoralising monotony of his life or that he is prepared to use deception to get to visit a neighbouring island when a Hollywood director comes there to film Man of Aran. McDonagh's play asks us to believe that Billy is carried off to Hollywood to do a screen test (seemingly without the need of a passport) and that, with equal inexplicability, he returns, a much-disillusioned figure, four months later.

There are some splendidly turned comic lines and "Irishisms" along the way (eg "It was a shark ate daddy, but Jaysus says you should forgive and forget" - "He doesn't say you should forgive and forget sharks").

And McDonagh skilfully sketches an ingrown, cut-off community where the news that there's a sheep with no ears counts as a major event and where bachelor sons pour drink into burdensome mothers in the hope of hurrying them to the grave.

What may wipe the smile off your face, though, is the mounting feeling that McDonagh's relationship to his material is primarily a heartless, opportunistic one. Sacrificing psychological depths and internal consistency, the play becomes a jolting switchback of reversed expectations and a succession of false bottoms. To substantiate this point would involve giving away too many of the "surprises", especially with regard to the real circumstances of the parents' disappearance and Billy's survival. Suffice it to say that we move into a clunkingly mechanical dramatic world where what has been pretended becomes the truth and where there's no principled fit between everything we have seen about one of the characters and what we eventually learn that he did in the past.

At the end, Billy is given in preposterously quick succession (a) a good reason for suicide; (b) his first kiss and hence a good reason for staying alive; and (c) the first incontrovertible evidence that he is dying anyway. As a friend said to me on the way out, it's a good job you've never been made to care remotely about him in the first place.

In rep at the Cottesloe,London, SE1 ( 0171-928 2252)